Entec gives d&b’s ‘next generation’ loudspeaker system an auspicious touring début with Gorillaz.

A restless spirit of adventure has been central to Damon Albarn’s creativity ever since he jumped aboard the gravy train at the beginning of the ’90s. The latest stop on his colourful journey has been Humanz, the fifth studio album from his so-called ‘virtual’ band Gorillaz and the release that has spawned the act’s most ambitious tour to date, featuring an ever-changing cast of special guests from Noel Gallagher, De La Soul and Albarn’s Blur colleague Graham Coxon to Shaun Ryder, Jehnny Beth and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, amongst many others.

Since Gorillaz first took to the road early in the Millennium, Entec Sound & Light has been proud to play a supporting role and the ongoing Humanz tour has witnessed the fruits of recent investments in cutting edge audio technology, from major brands including DiGiCo, d&b audiotechnik and Shure, as well as the emergence of a promising transatlantic partnership.

In the second half of 2017, Entec – a long-time d&b rental house – entered into an agreement with Colorado-based Brown Note Productions to give d&b’s next generation loudspeaker series its touring début. Designed for large-scale arenas, stadiums and festivals, GSL – part of the new SL-Series – made its first touring appearance with Gorillaz at Luxembourg’s 6,500-capacity Rockhal on November 1st, where the two main hangs each combined 16 GSL8 enclosures with two GSL12s, while 18 SL-SUBs lined the front of the stage.

“We were very keen to start using it as soon as possible and it was immediately evident that it’s a really clever design,” stated FOH engineer Matt Butcher, a mainstay within the Albarn camp since just prior to Blur’s 1994 Parklife tour, who has worked for the first time alongside system technician Perttu Korteniemi.

Butcher continued: “My first impression was that it is very quick to rig, using the compression mode for flying, and I was bowled over as soon as we turned it on because the amount of punch you get from the low end is startling. When we first started using it we were playing bottom heavy program without the subs on and putting a little 60Hz bump in the PA just to see how much low end we could get out of it, and it was pretty staggering. We then fired up the new SL-SUB which is just on another level. I believe it’s almost a hybrid of the J-SUB and J-INFRA, but the new model goes lower and is incredibly powerful whilst retaining so much clarity.

“Generally speaking, with sub arrays you can lose that power alley effect down the middle, making it a little bumpy at FOH while it tails off when you move away, but I’m not finding this to be the case with GSL. I’m getting a remarkably smooth, fat and even cardioid dispersion of sub bass across the entire arena.

“Right from the start of our pre-production, we made the firm decision to do everything absolutely right and not compromise the audio quality, and the results speak for themselves. A few of us have known Damon for so long that we feel able to make a lot of suggestions for improvement and he respects our opinions. For instance, we were very meticulous about assembling the kick drum samples from the various Gorillaz records so that they can be triggered live and they are reproduced so well through this new d&b system. We’re achieving a very tight bottom end and great articulation on bass guitar and bass synths.”

STRENGTHS OF VIRTUAL SILENCE

Powered by d&b D80 digital amplifiers, one aspect of GSL that excited both Butcher and monitor engineer Dave Guerin is the virtual absence of audio leakage behind the flown arrays.

“Our first few days with the system were remarkable,” Butcher said. “I walked around the back and the sound just disappeared. We ended up taking the level down by 2-3dB because we no longer had to rise above the ‘disinformation’ that we had become accustomed to. We suddenly appreciated how much level usually comes out of the back of a box. Because there’s no extraneous low end floating around on stage, everything sounds so much cleaner all the way down the line, so from my perspective at FOH it’s a perfect situation.”

Dave Guerin explained further: “Even with the PA running at about 102dB at FOH, I’m hearing almost nothing from the PA itself at the side of the stage and for the first time ever, I can actually hear low end in my wedges. There is no recognisable spill from the sub array – only some reflections from the auditorium – and this is quite phenomenal.”

With GSL currently in short supply due to its relative infancy, Entec fielded d&b V-Series enclosures for the PA’s side hangs, with two V8s and a pair of V-SUBs (per side) reserved as sidefills.

THE SD-FACTOR

Gorillaz’ production values have consistently become more complex since 2005’s Demon Days Live, involving many high quality collaborations with choirs and stellar guests. The extension of Albarn’s orchestral ambitions have led to additional textures and layers that, in turn, have laid down greater challenges for the audio department. “It’s always rewarding to come up with the solutions that make it all work on stage,” commented Butcher.

“It is a complicated show with so much going on at any one time. Our core line-up consists of drums, electronic percussion, guitar, bass, two keyboard players, six backing vocalists and Damon who plays piano, guitars and keytar. We also have the five-piece Hypnotic Brass Ensemble with us as well as a five-piece string section, and that combination is a first for us tonight at the O2 [in London]. We’re effectively shoehorning them into the mix because we have pretty much reached the limits of what is possible with an SD7 but, for me, it’s the best control surface for a job of this scale.”

A DiGiCo user since mixing on his first D5 in 2009, Butcher said: “I moved to Midas for a while but I returned to DiGiCo when they launched the SD-Rack, and I’ve remained with the brand ever since. The symmetry of the SD7’s layout – with left and right fader bays, and a master VCA bay in the middle – allows me to do three things simultaneously, and that is what makes it so practical. On the left, I have two layers of band instruments with vocals and guests on the right. Dave’s fader layout is fairly similar for the same practical reasons; we double up eight radio mics into individual artist channels.”

Butcher admitted to being a “big fan” of the SD7’s internal dynamics. The plug-ins he uses include aural exciters on snares, ADT, compressors and four delays with one assigned to replicate a CB radio effect. “Alongside those, I’m also running a Waves SoundGrid package on a laptop for things like live hard autotune effects on vocals for a De La Soul number and ‘Saturnz Barz’, the Popcaan track from Humanz. Waves also comes in handy for de-essers, multi-band effects and a gated fuzz box for snares. We’ve always tried to make things a little more interesting by integrating dub flavours.

“When Gorillaz first toured in 2001, we only had the one album and the band played behind a screen while the visual focus was on [Jamie Hewlett’s] projected animation. We livened things up by using tone generators and I’ve tried to retain that funky element of experimentation with the current show, so I still carry some outboard rack devices like a distressor and a TC Electronic Fireworx, an old favourite that can be awkward to programme but it’s been a great source of unusual effects that come and go. It’s a bit like taking a studio out on the road.”

Due to the nature of the show and its ever-changing roll call of special guests, the input count can differ from one night to the next, however, Butcher reported that “as a guide, I can just about record the show at 48kHz on 128 inputs on a Waves MGB interface via two MADI streams.”

ATTENTION

The scale of the production demanded an obsessive level of attention during the planning of the tour and the task of writing the audio system spec fell to Dave Guerin, whose documentation includes accurate info on patching, routing, input numbers and record outputs, for all of the audio team to follow.

At the core of the system are three DiGiCo SD-Racks while a Lenovo Thinkpad drives a DiGiCo Orange Box audio format converter for keyboards and tracks. In total, there are 28 channels of Ableton playback, eight tracks of click for various band members, and eight channels of digital keyboards with other keyboards such as piano, Moog and vocoder running off analogue outputs. “Everything is backed up so that there’s an instant remedy for any individual channel failure,” advised Guerin, whose association with Damon Albarn goes back 22 years.

Like his compadre at FOH, Guerin’s monitor desk choice is also an SD7, however, due to the colossal input count of 133 channels, he specified an SD11i to accommodate the crew’s 20-channel shout system (with d&b E5 speakers for the engineer) and provide separate monitoring for playback and keyboards tech Andy Hamwee.

“Including back-ups, Andy is monitoring about 64 channels. Analogue back-ups are switched in via a Macro, the main inputs being MADI via an Orange Box to the Opto-core. While Andy has direct control of the SD11i, I control it via an iPad app. Andy also has a FOH mix into the SD11i and he’s able to check that everything on the tracks is audible in the FOH mix and advise on any levels that may need to be adjusted.

“By moving all the shout inputs and outputs to the SD11i, it means I’m not quite fully maxed out on the SD7, which is why I’m able to fit some additional performers on there like the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Having spare resources on the SD11i means we can split the shout system so that Andy and another tech can line check all the keys and their MIDI, while at the same time I can line check everything else with [Entec’s] James ‘Kedge’ Kerridge, our stage tech, without talking over each other.

“In fact, Kedge has been a great ally in all of this. As well as mixing monitors for the support act, Little Simz, he is on a headset throughout the show and looks after the cables. He will often relay stage instructions back to me for mix adjustments.” Entec’s package also included DiGiCo SD12s for the support’s FOH and monitor mixes.

IN THE WINGS

Guerin generates an average of 20 mono monitor mixes with 30 in stereo for in-ear feeds, sidefills and Albarn’s piano wedges. Backing vocals are mixed left and right, with Albarn’s vocal centred. Twelve d&b M4 wedges are distributed across the stage as well as a V-SUB that is added to the drum fill. Jerry Harvey JH16V2 Pro in-ear monitors are used for the majority of the performers in conjunction with Shure PSM 1000 hardware.

“It’s a surprisingly quiet stage despite the extensive amount of activity,” noted Guerin, “and that especially helps when you add the string section because you’re not battling against the inevitable background sound pouring down the string mics. You can get them in the sidefill mix without generating feedback.”

The RF side of the operation is wholly dependent on Entec’s recent major commitment to Shure’s new high-tier Axient Digital system, which handles around 50 channels of IEM and AD Series radio mics for vocals and backline, all of which are monitored from a Waves eMotion LV1 desk via a patch on the SD11i. “I was taken aback by how clean the Axient sound is,” commented Butcher, whose opinion was shared by Guerin. “Yes, it’s a real step up in quality,” he said.

“As we have so many people on in-ears, it wasn’t a problem to stretch to another seven packs for the BVs who, after previously being tethered to their mic stands, are now on radio mics and have the freedom to dance around. We were concerned that we wouldn’t have enough spectrum available for everything, but we went to Axient for the radio mic systems and for the guitars and bass, the latter having a much narrower bandwidth per channel and therefore freeing up more air space for the IEM systems. I’ve been extremely happy with the results.”

The Humanz tour has been yet another exciting chapter in Entec’s long history with Gorillaz’ band leader and the company’s support is valued highly by crew and production management alike. “It’s great having [head of sound] Jonny Clark at Entec; we’re clearly all on the same side… he’s one of us,” Guerin pointed out. “I had a problem a couple of days ago and texted Jonny. He was immediately on the case and had someone here with me this morning to solve the issue without the slightest fuss.”

Production manager Joel Stanley was in agreement. He said: “Working with Entec has been really good and it’s a pleasure to be dealing with Jonny. No request has ever been too big. Whenever we have identified a piece of equipment that we desperately need, Entec has ensured that if they don’t have it in stock, they will purchase it without hesitation. They’ve been solid and I feel like we consistently have their complete attention.”

Gorillaz’ 2018 itinerary begins in Latin America in mid-March after which the Humanz tour returns to Europe for a summer run at festivals including Rock am Ring, Roskilde, Rock Werchter and Bilbao’s BBK Live.

Photography by Denholm Hewlett, Mark Allan, Mark Cunningham & Adam Stevenson

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